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IN-DEPTH 16 March 2016
Does self-exclusion from gambling work?
Industry insiders debate the effectiveness of self-exclusion for those faced with a gambling problem
By Gareth Bracken

Nobody connected to our industry benefits from problem gambling. It's awful for the player in question, whose troubles can lead to the loss of money, breakdown of relationships and deterioration of health. Bookmakers with a heart will never want to see their customers suffer, while even those lacking such a strong conscience must at the very least realise that it’s not good for the reputation of the sector, which in turn may negatively impact business one way or another. Problem gambling and addiction is also a headache for regulators, who may have to consider new laws and legislation to deal with ongoing issues – issues that can also affect the plans, policies and budgets of governments and councils. So everyone is clearly in agreement that the reduction of problem gambling would be a positive development for all concerned. There’s less of a consensus however regarding the effectiveness of certain approaches, including the notion of self-exclusion.

The core concept allows an individual who wishes to reduce his or her gambling, either in brick-and-mortar venues or online, to instruct operators to refuse their custom – essentially blocking them from placing wagers.

Initially people could only ban themselves from one shop or operator at a time and had to fill out different forms for each of the various operators, but in 2014 a scheme was piloted in Chatham, Kent, which allowed gamblers to exclude themselves from all betting shops in the area in one action. The scheme, which was introduced by Medway Council in partnership with bookmakers, saw players required to sign a single form and provide photos.

Last summer a three-month pilot went live in Glasgow city centre, backed by the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) and Glasgow City councillors, with individuals able to contact a confidential helpline to request that they be refused service at 36 participating shops, irrespective of which firms were operating the venues. This was later extended to include 300 shops across the wider Glasgow area, with excluders able to select whichever participating shops they wished. The next step on the agenda is a cross-operator scheme covering all 9,000 bookmakers in the UK which is set to launch in the spring. While championed by the ABB, the schemes have also been questioned and criticised in some quarters, including by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. Both organisations appear in the following debate, which saw us ask our four contributors: How effective is self-exclusion from gambling?

If you don't agree with any of the positions taken by our panel, why not write to us at [email protected] with a synopsis of your own informed opinion. If we like the sound of it, perhaps it will appear on these pages in the not-too-distant future.

Malcolm George
CEO, Association of British Bookmakers

Self-exclusion is one of the tools available to people who feel they may be developing a problem with their gambling. It is a tool that may not work on its own and may require other interventions and support to help the problem gambler. For some, a call to GamCare could support a decision to self-exclude. For others, a residential treatment programme with an organisation like the Gordon Moody Association might offer the support that is needed.

Effective self-exclusion requires the individual to acknowledge there is an issue and that self-exclusion is a partnership
For anyone considering self-exclusion the key is that, to be effective, it requires the individual to acknowledge there is an issue with their gambling and that self-exclusion is a partnership. While staff in a betting shop will do all they can to prevent someone from gambling, it is also incumbent on the person excluding to try their utmost to refrain from gambling. This will often be achieved with the support of family, friends and professional support services.

We all recognise though that the current system, where someone has to exclude from each shop or operator at a time, can be made better. That is why, along with others in the industry, including bingo and casinos, we are working closely with the Gambling Commission to launch a nationwide cross-operator, self-exclusion scheme.

As part of that work, we have been carrying out pilot schemes in Chatham and Glasgow. The Chatham scheme launched in December 2014 and has 10 shops taking part. While a paper-based system, the point of the pilot has been to confirm that it is possible to have a system where someone can exclude from all participating shops just by filling in one form.

That has expanded into the scheme being trialled across 300 shops in Glasgow, including independent operators. Unlike Chatham, here, someone wishing to exclude calls a confidential helpline and works with the trained staff to decide which shops to exclude from – e.g. the shops near where they live and work, perhaps ones in areas where they socialise and, ultimately, from all of the shops if that was what they needed. Their details are then circulated to those shops, along with photo ID.

I believe these developments around self-exclusion are positive and will represent a significant enhancement to the current system.

As with all of our responsible gambling initiatives, we acknowledge it is not a ‘cure all’ but do believe it is one of the increasing number of options available to someone who believes they have a problem with their gambling.

Derek Webb
Founder, Campaign for Fairer Gambling

Self-exclusions are unique contact opportunities between operators and gamblers. The gamblers have already experienced harm to such a degree that they have been able to admit it to themselves and admit it to others. Provision of treatment at this point is the most valuable outcome.

However as the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB) recently admitted in a consultation paper: “The adequacy of available treatment, and its consistency across the country, therefore remain unresolved questions.” It added: “Gambling-related harm should be regarded as a public health issue.”

The treatment offered by Gamblers Anonymous and GamCare is understood to be relatively ineffective compared to cognitive behavioural therapy as offered by the UK’s sole NHS Clinic. Therefore the onus is on operators and the gambling establishment to be lobbying the NHS for treatment provision. Sadly, the focus to date has been on the PR exercise of promoting the notion of “responsible gambling”, which actually dilutes the prospect of NHS involvement.

The bookies, with the highest record of self-exclusions, breaches and unidentified breaches, have not been willing to do enough
Gambling taxes are justified as there is a socio-economic cost of gambling. But if government is unwilling to recognise that and pick up that cost, then the justification for gambling taxes and even for the legalisation of gambling itself disappears.

This is not an argument for increasing taxes or levies on gambling, although if operators do not speedily change direction this could be a consequence. Irrespective of the legal position, operators supporting the Gibraltar Betting and Gaming Association action against the UK over the point-of-consumption gambling tax are acting immorally and unethically, and forfeit the right to claim ‘responsibility’ credentials.

The nationwide casino SENSE (Self-Enrolment National Self-Exclusion) method using facial recognition technology has set the gold standard for self-exclusion in the UK. The bookies, with the highest record of self-exclusions, breaches and unidentified breaches, have not been willing to do enough.

Their proposed roll-out of area-wide self-exclusions will face the same familiar challenges, with single staff relying on memory and poor photographs. The eight out of ten failures in the BBC testing of the Medway pilot scheme proved this conclusively.

Shop staff may be put in personal jeopardy if trying to ban a breaching self-excluder, and staff are not incentivised to recognise self-excluders. Once the FOBT maximum stakes per spin are reduced to £2 though, there will be far fewer betting shop self-exclusions anyway.

Stella Dalton
Head of Education & Prevention, GamCare

The effectiveness of self-exclusion is intrinsically linked to the motivation of the individual to stop gambling. Some callers and clients report to us that it is easy for them to circumvent their exclusions – there are many ways to gamble. This may be to do with the individual’s motivation to change, the operator’s capacity to identify self-exclusions and often a mix of both. Self-exclusion works most effectively when the individual is motivated to change. For most, self-exclusion is one part of a toolkit they will use to overcome urges to gamble. It is usually used in conjunction with other strategies and support. If self-exclusion was not available, it would be a severe loss for them in respect of this toolkit approach.

Self-exclusion has an important role to play in reducing harm and offering problem gamblers a step towards change
Those seeking treatment may already have self-excluded, others may be considering self-exclusion and some callers know very little. Self-exclusion is raised in more than one in 10 GamCare Helpline calls and in counselling as a coping support mechanism. For some, self-exclusion hasn’t worked and we explore the reasons that the person has sought to get around and perhaps actively breach the self-exclusion. The challenge for the person may be their readiness to let go of gambling.

They may have mixed feelings about taking steps to self-exclude – the impact on their social life around gambling, the embarrassment of asking staff for a form. Taking action to self-exclude can be empowering, a clear statement to stop gambling for an agreed time. For some people self-exclusion is enough to give them space to make changes for others – a powerful tool to support their need to overcome serious gambling concerns. Licence conditions and codes of practice strengthening of social responsibility and player protection has raised awareness of self-exclusion, and the multi self-exclusion schemes currently underway are a demonstration of positive use of technology to protect players. GamCare welcome systems that can help individuals to self exclude ‘one time’. We also acknowledge that the implementation of a multi-operator self-exclusion scheme can be a huge challenge. Technology will improve and operators can focus on initiatives to further education and prevention to support individuals who choose to exclude, and consult with GamCare (www.gamcare.org.uk) and others. Self-exclusion has an important role to play in reducing harm and offering problem gamblers a constructive step towards change.

Graham Weir
Head of Responsible Gambling, Ladbrokes

If I have a box of fresh doughnuts in my kitchen, chances are I’m going to eat at least one of them when I decide it’s time for coffee. Realistically, I’ll probably find it difficult not to have more than one. I know that I shouldn’t, but I tell myself it would be a waste if they don’t get eaten. By the time I’m enjoying the delicious filling of my second doughnut, I’ve convinced myself that I’ll do an extra 30 minutes of cardio. If only I had avoided those fresh-baking aromas while doing the grocery shop.

Deep down, someone struggling to control their gambling probably accepts that the responsibility rests with them to stay away from the bookies
I enjoy a bet, especially if I’m at the football or the races, but I don’t crave a bet in the way that I do those pesky patisserie products. If gambling was the thing that caused me grief, I know that the only way to control it would be to avoid it. For someone struggling to control their gambling, convincing themselves that “just one” might help, means they, like me, are probably convinced that they will indeed just have one. Of course it doesn’t work that way. Ultimately, abstinence from something that you cannot control is probably the only strategy to employ.

When it comes to betting, particularly retail betting, I can see how someone in those moments of irrationality might choose to blame the bookmaker for being there, blame the shop team for allowing them to place that last bet that meant they left the shop with no cash in their pocket. Deep down, I suspect they know that they shouldn’t have gone in there in the first place. Deep down, they probably accept that the responsibility rests with them to stay away from the bookies.

We have a responsibility to help someone who is struggling with their gambling. Shop teams look out for people who ask for help when they can’t go on gambling. If that person is well known to them – and someone who has developed a problem over a period of time will be – the chances are they will help keep them out of the shop. The new UK retail cross-operator self-exclusion process will make it easier for someone to self-exclude from all the bookmakers on their high street. It won’t make it easier for them to resist going in, or heading to one where they are not known. Only by seeking help for their problem will someone develop strategies to avoid gambling. As part of a range of activities to tackle their problem, then self-exclusion can be effective.

This article first appeared in the January/February Issue of Gambling Insider
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